Rats check their own knowledge before taking a test

Scientists from the University of Georgia have found evidence of a surprising level of intelligence in rats. Like a human student, the furry creatures can reflect on their own knowledge to decide if they want to take a test.

Animals often show a keen intelligence and many species, from octopuses to crows, can perform problem-solving tasks. But humans are thought to go one step further.

Students can predict how well they do in a test before they take it - can rats do the same?We can reflect on our own thoughts and we have knowledge about our knowledge. We can not only solve problems, but we know in advance if we can (or are likely to).

In technical terms, this ability is known as ‘metacognition’. It’s what students do when they predict how well they will do in an exam when they see the questions. It’s what builders do when they work out how long a job will take them to finish.

But can animals do the same? Finding out is obviously difficult. No animal is going to tell us what it is thinking. To work that out, we need clever experiments.

Allison Foote and Jonathon Crystal searched for metacognition in rats by giving them a test that they could decline. If they passed, they received a big reward and if they failed, they got nothing.

But the cunning part of their study lay in giving the rats a small reward if they declined the test. If they knew they were unlikely to pass the test, they’d be better off bowing out. In this experiment, a measured attitude beats a gung-ho one.

The test asked the rat to classify a burst of noise as ‘short’ or ‘long’. Noises that were very short or very long were easy to classify, but those of intermediate length were more challenging.

Rats show metacognition just like humans.After hearing the noise, the rat was offered two holes through which it could stick its nose – one for accepting the test and one for declining it. If it was game, it was then given two levers, one for a short noise, and one for a long one.

After some initial training, the results were clear. The rats were much more likely to opt out of the test if the noise they heard was challenging. And when they accepted the test, they were much more likely to answer correctly than in trials where they were forced to take it.

To Foote and Crystal, these results show that the rats knew when they didn’t know the answer. And armed with this knowledge, they could make adaptive choices about their future.

I love experiments like this. They are elegant, clever, and ever so slightly like talking to animals directly.

While we’re never going to have Doolittle-style conversations with rats, looking inside their heads (experimentally not literally) is the next best thing. Scientists like Foote and Crystal are like lab-coated rat whisperers.

 

 

Reference: Foote & Crystal. 2007. Metacognition in the rat. Curr Biol. 17: 551-555.

2 Responses

  1. […] show abilities once considered to be uniquely human, including jays that can plan for the future, rats that know how much they know, cultured chimps, tool-combining crows, and discriminating […]

  2. Hi; I have spent much time in the wild, and I have seen tool use by many creatures. It seems to me that it is unusual for a creature not to have some skill in this regard. In some cases, like a beaver, or a weaver bird, it could be considered innate, but, in others, it could be learned: sea otters using a favorite rock to crack open clam shells; birds pooping on your head as you approach their nest; golden eagles trying to knock young mountain goats off cliff ledges; once, a robin landed by a creek, nipped off a mouthful of grass tufts, dipped the “brush” in the creek, and started scrubbing itself; it goes on and on. I suppose these behaviors can become imprinted through repetition by others, however, they do involve tool use, and one wonders how much cognition is involved, but I have seen things that border on bizarre, and, to me, these indicate some form of cognitive thought: I had just crashed my hang glider off launch, and as I was dusting myself off, unhurt, I noticed a raven flying across the mountain; it turned, flew directly toward me, and started to laugh, then turned back, and flew off in the direction it was originally going. I have had considerable experience with ravens during my years of flying, and I am quite familiar with their sounds under many circumstances, but I have never heard that laugh. It would be easy to discredit this, but I’m convinced that little bugger was laughing at me. Many experiences I have had, and anecdotal evidence from others who have spent time with animals, and observed nature, further solidify my belief that animals are capable of higher thought. Maybe, I”m just becoming a crazy old man. Thanks

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